Since singing competition shows are television’s most inexhaustible genre, American Idol is back after a blink-and-you-missed-it two years off the air. This time, the show is on ABC instead of Fox, and there’s a brand new trio of judges: Lionel Richie, Katy Perry, and Luke Bryant. Ryan Seacrest, recently accused of sexual assault by a former stylist (a charge he denies), is still the host, and in the premiere episode claims he’s “waited a lifetime for this”, which is hard to believe given that babies born in 2002, when Seacrest began hosting Idol, will be able to vote in the next presidential election.
Idol was always the best of the singing competition shows and, at least in the US, the form’s progenitor. The crop of talent was better than that of The Voice and The X-Factor and the format, with intimate auditions set across the US, allowed for the contestants’ real, observable growth. Where other shows, including The Four, Fox’s Idol replacement, throw singers in front of a studio audience right away, Idol auditions dispense with the hubbub and introduce us to the talent pool before hair, make-up and ill-advised song suggestions get in the way. Indeed, one of the great joys of the show is looking back at contestants like Katharine McPhee and Carrie Underwood singing sans music before a dumbstruck Simon, Paula, and Randy.
Luckily, in the first episode of Idol’s 16th season, very little has changed. Nor has the show lost its penchant for heavy-handed inspiration, opening with a five-minute long, cross-country montage – narrated by Underwood herself – recounting Idol’s history of discovering everyone from “the dreamers to the lullaby singers”. As the music swells and shots of middle America whiz by, it becomes evident that the reboot is indulging in a bit of patriotism-lite, positioning music as a bridge between the right and the left in these divisive times.
American Idol, of course, will not save us. And without the biting interplay between its former judges or any sense of novelty, the show is a safer, more cordial shell of its former self. But still, there is a lot to like, primarily the contestants, who include Ron, a James Bay-singing Congolese immigrant, and many talented singer-songwriters from the deep south.
The judges are very pleasant if not especially insightful. While the show grows its legs one imagines they will too, but in the premiere there’s not quite enough substantive feedback to balance out the cutesiness. After one audition, Perry plants one on a never-kissed 19-year-old boy; before another, she and one of the episode’s most impressive vocalists lob the term “wig” back and forth, confusing Bryant and Richie, evidently not schooled in gay terminology.
Perhaps Idol producers sensed that 2018 calls for a dollop of optimism and positivity, because there are also very few bad auditions, save for one or two mildly disillusioned aspiring pop stars. Instead, this new version of Idol centralizes, even more than its predecessor, the contestant’s dreams of making it big and the tribulations they’ve faced along the way. It’s not an entirely unwise decision, given that Idol’s one of the only talent shows that can boast more than a few Hollywood exports, but season 16 could use some levity and spunk to tamp down its twinkly sheen.
American Idol is, of course, a most American show, driven by a persistent faith in the American dream. Integral to its appeal is the democratic voting process, which always made viewers feel like they had a hand in things, and the uplifting narratives culled from far and wide, from Fort Worth, Texas, home of the original Idol, Kelly Clarkson, to High Point, North Carolina, home of the best Idol, Fantasia Barrino. Among the reboots purporting to have interesting things to say about contemporary America – Roseanne, Will & Grace, and Queer Eye among them – Idol has undoubtedly taken the most abstract and sentimental approach.
While the uplift makes for happy viewing, Idol is nevertheless far from the water-cooler phenomenon it once was. The show doesn’t need Nicki and Mariah at each other’s throats or another William Hung to get wind in its sails. But by the time the third or fourth reliably good guitar-wielding hopeful walks through the door, the premiere starts to feel a bit like an open mic night, and you half wish Simon was around to shake things up.